In which we finally come to the beginning, or at least my beginning, for it was ‘Ambassador of the Shadows’ that was my introduction to Valerian and Laureline, and the most enjoyable of the four volumes then translated by Fantagraphics.
It’s also one of the prominent contributories to the 2017 Luc Besson film, as we’ll see.
City of a Thousand Planets takes two of its central ideas from the beginning and the end of this story, these being the impossibly sprawling structure that accommodates more alien lifeforms than you could possibly imagine (you, but not Christin and Mezieres), and the hidden, internal elysian world of the Shadows.
The creators devote almost six pages of build up to the creation of Point Central, an enormous, unstructured, impossible to grasp creation that began as a tiny meeting place between lifeforms and which expanded to incorporate a piece and a peace for everyone. Christin and de Mezieres start in philosophical form, mythologising the urge of every lifeform there ever is to look outward, to go outward, where there is more, drawing the strands together to introduce Point Central and some of its disparate lifeforms. Does some of this look in any way familiar? Hold that thought.
In the meantime, in the final panel of page 6, there’s the white silhouette of a very familiar spatiotemporal ship. Enter Valerian and Laureline, a more than usual study in contrasting attitudes. They’re escorting an Ambassador from Galaxity, heading for Point Central, where our native planet is to head up the Council – the only body even approximating to Order and Government in this incredible mishmash – for the first time.
The Ambassador is basically a jerk, a far-up-himself dictatorial type who’s got Val and Laureline as bodyguards whilst he’s here. He’s planning to lay down the Law, show these alien dimwits what’s what, and even before we learn that he’s got 10,000 Terran spaceships trailing him to take over the place, he’s going on about how Earth’s superiority has to be recognised, Point Central governed and how many of the aliens there are already unconsciously crying out for firm governance.
It’s outright bullshit, and very contemporary bullshit too in how it sounds like Vladimir Putin’s claims about how Ukraine wanted him to invade.
You can just picture our pair of Agent’s reactions. Laureline has already started acting to orders before she hears anything of this, and is plainly disgusted, whilst Val, the straight shooter, the inflexible lummox conscious of his duty, isn’t exactly happy but is determined to accommodate his duty. Even more than having to be a bodyguard to such an out-and-out arsehole, our favourite redhead is equally disgusted at being made carrier for their financial resources, the Grumpy Bluxte Transmuter, looking like a diamond-shelled armadillo, which can provide any currency you want. Admirably, we very quickly learn that it shits it out. No further comment.
This far, we’re still building up, but we’re now very near to the bit where the story really kicks-off. The Ambassador descends to the Terran section, his bodyguards five paces behind, making a grand and dignified entrance befitting his position. Only to get no more than two words into his speech before the wall is blown in, everyone is hit by paralysing cocoons, the Ambassador is kidnapped and Val goes after him, but not before ensuring Laureline has her helmet on and is protected, an instinct to save his partner for which he will receive absolutely no thanks whatsoever.
And this is where the story really begins. Because ‘Ambassador of the Shadows’ is really a Laureline solo. Determined to save Val, deliberately and cross-temperedly binding herself to her own orders to take no personal initiatives and with only the Grumpy and a weak-kneed bureaucrat whose forte is protocol to assist her, our little redhead sets out to go wherever in, on or around Point Central she has to go in search of her partner, oh, and the Ambassador as well. If she has to.
Which is the excuse Christin and Mezieres want to conduct a picaresque tale, which can last as long or as short as they wish, throwing in alien cultures one after another, taking Laureline on a wandering trip as she keeps pursuing Val’s trail. There are plenty of scenes in here that Besson mined for his film, and one scene in particular, set in a cantina, that someone not a million miles from the planet Tatooine mined without giving credit where it was due.
If I were minded to be critical, then I would put an emphasis on the absence of any story-progression. It’s just a long sequence of one-thing-leading-to-another, with little or no actual development of an on-going story-line.
Such approaches have to be handled very carefully, precisely because they’re not a story but a succession of scenes, being presented for their own sake, without even the actual development between levels of a video game. But what makes this work so well in ‘Ambassador’ is the sheer quality of the creators’ imagination. Every section is an amazement in itself, sustaining the interest.
And Laureline herself, whether acting alone or displaying her contempt for the ineffectual, scared and hopeless ‘Colonel Protocol’ (actually, Diol) as he trails in her wake, provides the thread to bind all these scenes together, growing increasingly frustrated at not catching up with her partner.
Along the way we meet those walking vulturine information-traders, the Shingouz, for the first but not last time. Laureline finds herself translated into a comfortable, clingy short shift for a visit to a paradisial Greek island full of handsome, well-muscled young men, queuing up to snog her passionately. And eventually she finds her way to where Val and the Ambassador have been taken, Point Central’s first unit, constructed by its original race.
Who have taken the Ambassador because they are very well aware of his plan, and the spaceship fleet. They live in what could only be defined as another dimension, removed from the reality of Point Central. They have removed themselves from the drive to power, they do not want to run Point Central. But they will not allow anyone else to do so.
It makes a great impression on the Ambassador, though not as deep as it ought to. He goes from there to the Council Chamber, calling himself the Ambassador of the Shadows, intent on bringing the message he’s had delivered within that ideal place, but still set on enforcing it with Earth’s fleet, under Earth’s name and pre-eminence. They never learn, do they? All it gets him is expulsion, not just him and his fleet, but everyone from Earth, banned from Point Central for a hundred years.
But what, we may ask, of Laureline and Val? It’s the long-awaited reunion and it goes as you might expect. She’s delighted and relieved and runs into his arms, kissing him. He’s delighted, and condescends to her how she needn’t have worried, her Valerian comes out on top. Then he starts wondering why she turns and stalks away. On second thoughts, maybe Dane DeHaan was right for Val in the film.
Having spent all her time obeying orders in her own unique fashion, Laureline finally announces she’s going to use her own initiative. This means using the suddenly-redundant spacefleet to transport everyone and everything off Point Central, for the long retreat to Galaxity, with the Ambassador of the Shadows still unable to understand why he, in all his dignity as a Terran, has been treated like this. Some people never learn, and Christin and Mezieres knew exactly who these were.
The energy and invention of this story, not to mention Laureline in the leading role, made this my favourite story forty years ago, and my favourite story of reading the entire saga. That doesn’t make this the last great story, however, not by a long way.